Knox County judge refuses to lift his seal on court records in UT case

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee refused this week a request by the Knoxville News Sentinel to lift the seal on court records entered in the case of former University of Tennessee football players accused of rape.

Former UT football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams.

Former UT football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams.

The news organization filed a petition months ago, arguing that the judge had put the records under seal without any hearing on why secrecy was needed.

The judge did not grant the News Sentinel’s request for a hearing, but allowed its attorney to argue the point during another hearing on Tuesday related to the prosecutors’ request to delay the trials.

McGee said he would not lift the seal on the records, which include the Knoxville Police Department’s affidavit for a search warrant for one of the player’s apartment. He stated that “Publicity is the enemy of a fair trial,” and said the public “will get everything as it happens (during the trial.)

From the News Sentinel story, Judge: Unsealing records in A.J. Johnson/Michael Williams case could taint potential jurors:

(News Sentinel attorney Rick) Hollow noted the accuser in the case is one of a group of women who have filed a federal lawsuit in Nashville against UT over the handling of sexual assault allegations. The lawsuit itself has generated a trove of information about the two ex-players’ cases, including revelations Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch called UT football coach Butch Jones to alert him of the rape accusations long before the accuser or the players were interviewed.

“We have this situation where information is swirling around, and (the records sealed by McGee are) evidence that could put (questions) to rest,” Hollow said.

The players’ attorneys took no position on the newspaper’s request. (Prosecutor Kyle) Hixson countered the lawsuit and its resulting media coverage argues not for the unsealing of records in the rape case but against it.

“Both sides are entitled to a fair trial,” Hixson said. “The defendants are effectively being tried in the media (because of the lawsuit).”

That prompted (former linebacker A.J. Johnson’s attorney Tom) Dillard to respond, “Our clients are already being tried in the media. That’s one of the reasons we take no position.”

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